The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) ReviewJoe Shaffer
The war in Vietnam raged well into the 1970s. Along with it came a slew of controversies and tragedies that created a fierce political climate. This was then exacerbated by the American media, who bombarded its audience with graphic imagery depicting the casualties of war, complete with unnecessary details. Above all, our officials reassured us that we were winning and that we were fighting the good fight. In other words, they lied right to our faces...
Horror directors at the time drew heavily from Vietnam, producing fright flicks inspired by the graphic imagery and the lies. Among such films was a project led by an ambitious documentary cameraman named Tobe Hooper. He initially claimed his film was based on a true story, only to reveal that such a claim was a blatant lie--much like the ones told during the war. The film depicted a group of average young people taking a trip to a homestead in Texas, where they are accosted by a family of cannibals. Among the man-eaters was a mask-donning brute with a chainsaw, a man who came to be known as Leatherface.
Hooper called the flick The Texas Chainsaw Massacre* (TCM). The film opened to mixed reviews from critics and even worse responses from theaters. Many cinemas banned it on the grounds that it was too violently realistic, and they were damn right. Hooper was out to show us that the world is not all peaches and cream, and that the reassurance that good will always triumph over evil was a lie used to placate worried citizens. Perhaps he felt we needed to realize that sometimes we lose, and sometimes our loved ones perish in unpleasant ways.
Graphic films were not precisely new circa 1974. By that point, audiences should have already witnessed Night of the Living Dead and Blood Feast, two of the earliest "splatter" flicks. Still, they were shocked by TCM, likely due to Hooper's documentary-style direction. The movie's rough cinematography gave it the appearance of a typical 1970's documentary. When combined with Hooper's "true story" claim, the directing style belied that what the audience was seeing was factual. To boot, the film boasted a wonderful script filled with casual dialog. This gave viewers the impression that the cast of characters were actual people and not merely fictional figures.
You can only imagine the outcome when Hooper added brutality to the mix. The first half of the film consisted of fairly realistic and monstrous acts of butchery performed by Leatherface, as he picked off the main cast one by one. One character, for instance, stumbles upon the murderer's lair and catches a quick glimpse of the brute, just before Leatherface brings a hammer down on his skull. The man writhes and twitches on the floor, seizing away his last few moments before Leatherface slams a nearby door and begins preparing the man for dinner. Another woman stumbles upon the family's domain and eventually finds herself dangling from a meat hook. The film was pretty intense for its time, but if you think about it, it was no worse than some of the imagery that audiences had seen before. What made it so effective, though, is the movie's realistic feel.
Honestly I'm not as big of a fan of TCM's brutality as you'd think I would be, mainly because violence is pretty much expected in today's horror films. This is not to say that I don't enjoy the early phases of the film, as they are pretty tense and atmospheric. For me, the film really picks up after Leatherface reduces the main entourage to a sole survivor, whom he captures. Instead of turning her into burgers, he invites her to dinner with his other family members and serves her one of her friends. This is where the film's viciousness comes to a screeching halt in order to make way for pure insanity and old fashion terror. It all culminates in an explosive and unforgettable finale.
Unfortunately, the franchise has never returned to this level of pure horror. There have been some admirable attempts to recapture TCM's fantastic blend of brutal horror and psychological terror, but even the best of those attempts don't measure up. Regardless, the original film is still a terrific--and sometimes underrated--piece of horror cinema.
*Depending on the release of the film, 'chainsaw' is either one word or two. In some of the earliest releases, it's split into two words rather than one.
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